Tour de France, 1956

September 17th-23rd

Some idea of the severity of the Tour of France can be assesed from the results of the General Classification, with the first three places taken by Marquis de Portago, Stirling Moss and Olivier Gendebien, the cars they used being Ferrari Europa 3-litre, Mercedes-Benz 300SL and Ferrari Europa, with another SL, Porsche Carrera, two Giulietta Sprint Veloce, and yet another Ferrari Europa following on. This enormous rally, covering more than 6,000 kilometres throughout France, was no milk-and-honey affair as the above results indicate and success was gained by competition-bred Gran Turismo cars driven by drivers with Grand Prix experience. The route took in every possible, type of road that France possesses and, starting on the morning of September 17th, it continued until the evening of September 23rd with only two night stops, one at Le Mans and the other at Vichy, and the hardest part of the route, that which took in the Alpine passes around Briancon, had to be done at night.

Altogether 103 competitors left Nice at minute intervals, and by devious back roads and with an average speed varying between 55 and 60 kph, they made their way to the first special test. Broadly speaking the Tour consisted of visiting all the major racing circuits in France, and taking part in a scratch race at each one. Throughout the rally points were lost, the times in the races being translated from seconds into points, and the crew with the minimum total at each stage were adjudged to be in the lead of the general category. In addition, the entry was divided into two classes. Strictly Series and Non-Series, all cars having to be of the Touring or Grand Touring type as listed by the FIA. The General Category was a free-for-all and the two groups were subject to a formula which took into account the cylinder capacity of the cars.

Observing at the first test, which was a timed climb of the 21.6-kilometre mountain road up Mont Ventoux, near Avignon, one obtained an appreciation of worth of the entry for this super rally. Mechanically it was to be a battle between 300SL Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari Europa 3-litres. while not far behind were Sprint Veloce Alfa-Romeo, and Porsche Carreras. In the small group were DBs and Panhards, while factory Dauphines were up against private ones as well as normal Panhard saloons. Of the entry it was noticeable how few British cars were entered, there being an MGA, Jaguar and Aston Martin DB2 with French and Belgian drivers. Leaving the foot of the mountain at minute intervals, the whole entry made the timed climb, continuing down the other side and on to the next control without stopping.

The Dyna-Panhard 54 saloons were noticeably faster than the normal Dauphines, a Denzel 1,300-cc roared past with much noise and smoke and going very fast, while a string of Giuliettas proved yet again what fine little competition cars they are. Among them was one cornering on its rims which was driven by Harry Schell, and only a little slower were Guelf and Frere in similar cars. Of the Porsehe Carreras one could be seen to be outstandingly fast from a long way off, and it was driven by Jean Behra with his brother as passenger. To end the string of standard production models came a collection of Ferraris and Mercedes-Benz, the Ferrari clan consisting of Rosier, Trintignant. de Portago, Gendebien, Peron and Lena, and of these Rosier and Gendebien had bodywork by Farina meant more for the boulevards than the mountains, while the others had the sleek competition coupe bodies by Scaglietti. The two boulevard cars were horrible to watch, suffering front too much weight in the wrong places, and Gendebien was tying himself in knots trying to make a fast time. By contrast the others were excellent and Trintignant was going at a terrific pace, but he spun on the last hairpin and spoilt an otherwise excellent time. Three SL coupes followed, the Moroccan driver La Caze making a good impression, while Jacques Pullet, Gordini Grand Prix driver and winner of the 1954 Tour of France, not only looked neat and tidy but proved to make the fastest climb of the day. By contrast this group ended on a comparatively quiet note with a climb by an XK140 coupe.

The modified group followed, this in some cases meaning only the removal of a bumper, while in others, such as the factory Dauphines, only the name remained standard. In this group Gilberte Thirion in a Porsche Carrera not only made up a minute on the mere man who left in front of her, in a similar car, but actually overtook him on the outside of an unprotected corner. Modified Alfa-Romeo Giuliettas, other Porsches and a line of factory DB coupes. their flat-twin Panhard engines beating away lustily, all climbed well, and to close the day came four 300SL cars, “modified” mainly in respect of removal of bumpers, radiator grilles and so on. Cotton, who climbed strongly, while Moss did the best he could with a car he had only met that morning and on a climb he did not know well. Finally, in a series of hair-raising full-lock slides, came Mairesse, the up-and-coming Belgian driver, and what he lacked in finesse he made up for by force, the rear wheels of his SL spinning and scrabbling on the loose stones on the edge of the narrow road.

While the timekeepers did some arithmetic the competitors continued on to Nimes for a brief stop and a check point before setting off across the Masif Central and down towards the Pyrenees. In spite of groupiog the entries and applying a formula to make up for differences in cylinder capacity. it was soon obvious that the outright winner of the rally was going to be the man of the moment and as none or the aces lost a  point on the road section to Nimes the times up Mont Ventoux became the order of the day, and were Pollet, Mairesse, Moss, Cotton, de Portago, La Caze, and Trintignant. Right from the word go the Mercedes-Benz cars were showing a marked superiority and but for de Portago, had swamped the Ferrari opposition.

Through Monday night the competitors made their way to St Gaudens, where early on Tuesday morning a five-lap race was held round the full length of the Comminges circuit, now in good condition but unfortunately no longer used for serious racing. Here Moss was able to employ his racing skill to combat his fellow SL drivers and still the Ferrari boys could not make an impression and it began to look as though the Tour was going to be a walk-over for Stuttgart machines. A short distance farther on the competitors came to Peyresoude Hill and were timed over 41/2-kilometres of its twisting climb, and once more it was a Mercedes-Benz benefit with Pollet being fastest, followed bv La Case and Moss, though de Portago and Trintignant improved their positions in the General Category. Leading all the small cars came Storez with his special Porsche Carrera, a 1954 Porsche, stripped of all unnecessary weight, fitted with aluminium panels and a very healthy Carrera engine. His times at Mont Ventoux and Peyresoude put him well ahead of even Behra, who was running a strictly stadard Carrera.

Through the second night of the Tour the file of cars wound its way up the west side of France, and it was interesting to see them at a control point at midnight on tuesday, just south of Perigeux. The control was at a Shell filling station, the French Shell company patronising the event, and in spite of the hour a vast crowd of locals turned out to watch the cars passing through, or wait should they be a bit ahead of schedule. Although the average speeds required were seldom more than 40 mph there were a number of secret checks to prevent unnecessary speeding, anyone found to be averaging over 50 mph being disqualified. In general the road averages were easy to maintain, especially for the big Gran Torismo cars, but navigators had to pay strict attention for the route lay mostly on small side roads and they had to keep an eye out for not getting too far ahead on the easier parts. In the little village of Lalinde, where this particular control point was, the public interest in the Tour was typical of the whole of France. Seldom does the man in the street have a chance to see close at hand such a desirable collection of fast cars, Ferraris, Mercedes-Benz, Porsches, Alfa-Romeos, factory Panhards. DBs, and so on, while those happy owners of Dauphines or Dynas were able to watch with amazement the acceleration of the factory versions as they left the control. To see a Dauphine spin its wheels on a dry road, or a DB coupe give a squeak from its front tyres as the driver snatched second gear, were things the normal French public seldom get a chance to enjoy at such close quarters, while V12 Ferrari being taken up to 7,000 rpm up your own High Street is always worth staying up late for.

The second night was not terribly difficullt, though a certain amount of mist in the early hours caused eyesto be strained, but by breakfast time the field had arrived at the Le Mans circuit. Here a flat-out blind for 12 laps of the Circuit of the Sarthe took place, with no regulations causing a limit on speed, nor was there the worrying thought of 24 hours of such racing. Here the Ferraris of de Portago and Trintignant began to make headway, though the French driver’s effort was forced to a stop when his engine suffered partial seizure, leaving the Spanish Marquis to defend Maranello honours. The other Ferraris, of Rosier and Gendenbien, were proving too touring for words and both were hopelessly outclassed. The Mercedes-Benz triumphal tour received a severe setback at Le Mans, for Moss found his car suffering from an obscure ignition fault that lost him 700 rpm, Cotton had a tyre burst at high speed which both frightened him and slowed him down, and Mairesse had a piston break and finished the 12 laps in a cloud a smoke. The little Alfa-Romeos were going as well as ever, Schell once more doing prodigious things with his, though Guelfi had been forced out before arriving at Le Mans due to hitting a herd of cows. Storez was not only well up on handicap, but in General Classification as well, and was holding his own at Le Mans when engine trouble intervened and caused him to retire. Pollet, however, was still in fine form and finished the Le Mans race still as leader of the overall event. Having been motoring almost continuously since early Monday morning, by 5 pm, Wednesday the competitors were happy to be able to put their cars away in a locked park and retire to bed. For those with trouble nothing could be done until they had clocked out of the control at 6 am the following morning. Apart from the mechanical bothers most of the Mercedes-Benz cars were through to the canvas on their tyres and there was much organising and borrowing of wheels being arranged.

Since the start the weather had been superb and Thursday morning it continued as the 72 cars still left in made a leisurely run to Rouen, leisurely that is if they had no trouble to rectify or tyres to change, in which case some pretty fast motoring was done in order to arrive at the Rouen circuit in time. Here the Ferraris began to show some of their race breeding and they trounced the SLs pretty thoroughly, though it must be admitted that the Moss car was still misfiring pretty badly. Even so, Pollet, La Care and Cotton were all beaten by de Portago and Trintignant, while Rosier managed to get his heavy touring model well placed. During this eight-lap test race there was much excitement and some pretty hectic driving, the Giuliettas doing some pretty hairy aerobatics. Behra was showing just how well a Carrera could be driven, and was running rings round Peron in a Europa Ferrari, while Mlle Thirion lost only a minute to Behra during the eight laps. Although the little Panhards and DBs were outclassed on the scratch placings, they were beginning to dominate the handicap class of the modified group of cars, the leader being Hemard, accompanied not only by his regular Le Mans to-driver Flahaut, but in the actual Le Mans factory Panhard-Monopole coupe.

Leaving Rouen the competitors continued on their way round the north of France, through Berck and Cambrai, over the cobbles of the Pas de Calais country, and then descended to Reims, arriving there as darkness fell. The Champagne circuit was en fete, as for the French Grand Prix, and the wonderful lighting installations were going at full blast. Unfortunately there was something of a shambles on the approach to the circuit, for the competitors’ time control point was actually in the, paddock and with entry to the circuit being free for the public a big crowd turned up. The result was that competitors’ and spectators’ cars became rather badly tangled up and there was much shouting and confusion, together with a lot of motoring about over fields and ditches before everyone clocked in on time. Since the Rouen test de Portago had gone into the lead of the event, ahead of Pollet, Moss, La Caze, Gendebien, Rosier and Trintignant, so that although the Ferraris were now beginning to show a superiority over the Mercedes-Benz, the initial lead by the German cars was still keeping them well placed.

The Reims test consisted of 12 laps of the Grand Prix circuit and as it was now well and truly dark the electrics had to prove their worth, as well as the speed of the cars being tried to the utmost. Once again it was a Ferrari benefit, de Portago being the man of the night, followed by Pollet at a discreet distance, while Moss was dropping farther and farther back due to his recalcitrant engine. Behra was still keeping well ahead of the small cars and Schell and Frere were continuing their fierce Giulietta battle, with the American just keeping ahead. The result of this race kept de Portago still in the lead, and then after midnight the more interesting part of the route began.

Turning east towards the German border of France the route went to the Vosges mountains, made a pretty comprehensive tour of them and then descended over the Juras and down to Aix-les-Bain. Here was the seventh special test, a very simple standing,start over half a kilometre, though the marking was severe for every second counted for 10 points, so that it was real speed-trial stuff with split seconds affecting the general classification enormously. Pollet recorded a masterly 18.1 sec and La Care 18.3, de Portago was winding his Ferrari up in second but as he whipped the gear-lever into third his fist knocked the ignition off and he coasted over the line, recording 20.9 sec, a loss of 28 points over Pollet. This test proved a slight revival on the part of the Mercedes-Benz, though Moss and Cotton were not very well placed, but it put Pollet back into the lead of the whole event. Another to have trouble was Hemard with the Le Mans Panhard, for it went on to one cylinder as he left the start and it took him 63.2 sec to cover the 500 metres, which meant a loss of 632 points.

Arriving at Grenoble as darkness began to fall, these that still remained in the rally had to tackle the most difficult part of the road section, for the route did a complete circuit of the Alpine passes between Grenoble and Briancon and the whole way was in darkness. Altogether 26 competitors fell out on this section duo to mechanical failures, lateness, or, as in the case of Trintignant, accidents, the French driver and his co-pilot Picard running into a non-competing car that was descending the Col du Glandon while they were going up. This part of the Tour was pretty fatiguing but those teams that had a seasoned rally driver as co-pilot had an advantage which made things more comfortable for most French rally men know the Alps intimately.

By early morning the first man was arriving at St Etienne and when the final check was made the total entry was sadly depleted. There followed a 20-lap race round a very simple circuit and at the start of this Pollet was still leading on General Classification, with de Portage second and Moss just holding on to third place. La Caze had retired with a broken gearbox during the mountain section and Rosier was delayed by a broken brake pipe, and though he and his co-pilot Estager repaired it another one split, and they arrived at the Crest control too late to justify continuing. During the race at St Etienne de Portago was dominating things when a stone from another competitor smashed his windscreen, which caused him to slow up. However, his close rival Pollet was also in trouble for a valve rocker broke and he finished the race on five cylinders. Having spent every spare moment in changing likely causes of the misfire and lack of power, Moss was beginning to get his Mercedes-Benz sorted out and during this race he was able to take second place. which regained some of his lost points.

By Saturday afternoon the control at Vichy was reached and another much-needed night’s rest was allowed, while the cars remained in a closed park, and Sunday morning they set out once more at 6 am for the final stage of the Tour. Although Pollet was able to repair his broken engine he could not get to the Vichy control in time and had to abandon, so that when the 37 remaining cars left on Sunday morning for a fairly easy drive to Montlhery, the order was de Portago, Moss, Gendebien (who had worked his way up by consistency and the failures of others), Behra, Cotton, Schell, Frere and Mlle Thirion, and here it might be opportune to give a mention to the poor suffering co-pilots who either had to navigate or drive the duller road sections, the above-named stars naturally doing all the “plums” such as the races and hill-climbs. The leader had with him a friend named Nelson, who was completely inexperienced and was suffering the ardours of night-and-day motoring philosophically, Moss was with George Houel, a Parisien rallyman whose Mercedes-Benz it was; Gendebien was likewise with the owner of his car Ringoir, Behra was in his own Porsche but had his young brother Jose with him, he being well experienced in French rally work; Cotton was with his regular rally passenger Leclere; Schell was with French racing-driver Jean Vidilles; Frere with a Belgian friend Andre Scheid, and Mlle Thirion was with Inge Polensky, wife of the German Porsche driver.

The wonderful September heat-wave continued throughout the Sunday-morning run and the competitors arrived at the Montlhery Autodrome in brilliant sunshine, with an hour or two to spare before the final race. This was over 10 laps of the long road circuit of 12.5 kilometres. By now Moss had got his car going something like normal but it was too late for him to have any chance of winning the Tour outright, so de Portago merely had to be sure of finishing in order to remain at the top of the General Category. After leaving Vichy he had had a sheet of Perspex screwed on to the Ferrari to replace the broken windscreen and so, barring accidents or breakdowns, he was all set to carry off the Tour de France. Moss ran away with the race, lapping in fine style and giving a nice demonstration of high-speed 300SL motoring, while de Portago motored swiftly but surely to final overall victory. Gilberte Thirion had the ladies’ award assured, but had a worrying time when the Porsche went on to three cylinders, and she had to do most of the race at a crawl, endeavouring to keep going until Moss had completed the 12 laps. The Giulietta battle was continuing as strongly as at the beginning of the 6,000 kilotnetres, and Schell and Frere were a few feet apart until the American ran out of fuel and had to stop and pour some out of a can. Although this lost him the Montlhery race against the Belgian driver, he did not lose enough points to drop from his lead over the whole rally.

With de Portago the outright winner, the 37 contestants remaining from the original 103 drove the last stretch into Paris to where the Tour de France finally wound up with the prize distribution.

It had certainly proved to be one of the better motoring events and if not to the liking of the hardened rally driver it was joy for the racing drivers. As a vindication of the Gran Turismo type of car it was a complete success and, similarly, it was a wonderful trial of the combination of stamina of man and machine, together with skill and suitability of the cars. As a pure motoring competition calculated to bring out all the best qualities of the higher forms of motoring and competitions it was excellent, and it is to be hoped that next year there will be a strong contingent of British competitors, though what they will use as cars to beat Ferrari, 300SL, Carrera and Giulietta is hard to visualise just at the moment.—DSJ.